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Tired of being marginalized, Viet gay rights group stops playing nice

Arts and CultureGay RightsHo Chi Minh City (Vietnam)PoliticsFreedom of the Press

Hieu Nguyen and fellow protesters stood on the sidewalk holding signs and waving an enormous rainbow flag as the traditional Vietnamese parade passed them by.

Barred from the Lunar New Year's event — and largely ignored in their own community — members of the fledgling gay rights group decided it was time to stop playing nice.

They took training sessions with established LGBT groups, sought out legal strategy from veteran gay rights defenders Lambda Legal and attended workshops.

Now emboldened activists are flexing their muscles and demanding change in Little Saigon, a sprawling immigrant community that has dragged its feet on coming to terms with basic gay rights issues.

"This is not the Rosa Parks era," said Nguyen, a Garden Grove social worker. "I'm not sitting at the back of the bus anymore."

The newly formed Viet Rainbow has emerged as a militant front and a platform for educating immigrants in a community that rigidly clings to tradition.

There is a chapter for parents. There is a scholarship for LGBT students. And there is a resolve to march in the upcoming annual Tet parade.

When organizers of the colorful celebration, which winds along the main boulevard in Little Saigon, put Viet Rainbow on notice that LGBT individuals would also be barred from the Feb. 2, 2014, parade, supporters warned that their exclusion this time would come at a price.

Peter Renn, an attorney at Lambda Legal, which has spent decades fighting for LGBT causes, said banning the group could be a financial bloodletting for organizers once gay rights leaders put pressure on sponsors.

"This issue isn't going to go away. Organizers will be called out. They will hear the demands — there's no way to avoid it," Renn said.

"This blatant act of discrimination will not be left unchallenged," added Wilson Cruz, spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "If Tet parade leaders want to truly celebrate this day, they must do so by acknowledging and celebrating with the entire community."

Still, it may be an uphill struggle.

Some leaders in Little Saigon, which stretches across central Orange County and is the largest Vietnamese American community in the nation, suggested that some immigrants are not ready to welcome LGBT men and women, especially when they openly show affection.

"I counseled them. I told them that when they carry banners, when they position gay rights as human rights … that this issue is too new for the community," said Hung P. Nguyen, a member of the South Vietnamese Marines Veteran Charities Assn., which cosponsored the 2013 parade.

"Don't impose," he said. "The reaction of the community will be to strike back."

At the core of the impasse, some cultural experts said, was a set of customs drawn from Confucianism, including the belief that a person should sacrifice his life, if necessary, to uphold his traditional views on morality.

Parade organizers were furious last winter when members of the then-fledgling Partnership of Viet LGBT Organizations took them to court in an effort to force their way into the event. The rights group lost, but organizers said they were left to pay thousands in legal bills.

"We respect their choice, but this is not our tradition," Ha Son Tran, vice president of the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, said before the start of the 2013 parade. Gay rights, he added, are "not like freedom of speech."

Tracy Nguyen doesn't see it that way. She joined Viet Rainbow because her son is gay and she wanted to stand with him.

"I tell them: 'Consider us your parents. We care about how you feel.' I am very protective of them because I've seen that demeaning look they get from community elders," she said. "No one should be viewed that way."

After being forced from the 2013 parade, gay rights organizers in Little Saigon dug in by forming Viet Rainbow of Orange County and training with the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance. The group is applying for nonprofit status and has been coached on how to recruit members and raise money.

"With the Viet groups, we're still not there yet," said Cathy Lam, a Vietnamese American Nongovernmental Organization Network staffer who advised Viet Rainbow members. "We're still dealing with adults who say, 'If I hang out with you guys, would I eventually become gay?'

"Many people in the community think it's a disease," Lam said. "They don't know the role biology plays in our lives."

Hieu Nguyen, the Viet Rainbow leader, said his team was focusing on advocacy and pushing for inclusion in cultural and community events.

"We can have our own parade, but that's not the point," he said.

"The point is coming together as a community. We're not less than — we're part of this community. And for a long time, we were silent. But not anymore."

anh.do@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Arts and CultureGay RightsHo Chi Minh City (Vietnam)PoliticsFreedom of the Press
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